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housing deficit and empty buildings in são paulo* The Brazilian housing deficit is calculated annually by the João Pinheiro Foundation, supported by data from the National Census and the National Household Sample Survey (SEADE). For the Metropolitan Region of São Paulo (MRSP), the urban housing deficit is approximately 611,936 units. The poorest families in São Paulo — those with incomes of up to three minimum salaries (MS) — are most in need of housing, representing 81.2 per cent of the deficit. Households with incomes between three and five MS represent 9.1 per cent of the total housing deficit, and those with incomes of five to 10 MS represent 7 per cent of the deficit. Households with incomes of 10 MS or higher require only 1.8 per cent of the missing housing units. While millions of Paulistanos struggle to find adequate, legal housing, many buildings in São Paulo sit empty. The proliferation of empty buildings is decried by many as a social crime of negligence and criticized as further evidence of the primacy of private property over social necessity. Since 1980, the locus of São Paulo’s substantial population increase has been in the periphery, well away from the central and intermediary urban areas, where populations are declining. The central districts of old São Paulo lost approximately 300,000 residents between 1980 and 2000. With the departure of people and businesses from the city centre, the number of vacant buildings has grown. In most Brazilian cities today, the number of empty houses actually exceeds the housing deficit, but the MRSP is the largest metropolitan area in the country and has the greatest number of empty homes. In 2006, an estimated 606,048 vacant but habitable housing units existed in urban São Paulo. The number climbed to 619,915 units in 2007. Although data suggests that many of the abandoned buildings would not be suitable for families earning more than three MS (owing to families’ expectations), social activists argue that the buildings can be used to solve the housing shortage. There are many reasons buildings have been abandoned in the city. Some owners owe so much unpaid tax on their buildings, or are so far behind on their water and electricity bills, that they cannot afford to put them on the market, preferring instead to let them remain empty. Others are entangled in building ownership disputes or inheritance problems, and some are simply sitting on their investments, waiting for a more favourable market before they sell. Many businesses and hotels have been forced to close or change their venue to remain profitable, as the business centre of São Paulo has shifted to the southwest of the city over the last four decades. Some buildings are old and decrepit and are too expensive to refurbish; they may lack regular papers needed for a legal sale; or they may no longer satisfy market standards (i.e., they may lack parking space). There are also buildings in highly valued commercial areas in which the owner rents out the basement for a high rate, leaving the rest of the building empty. This allows the owner to make a good rental income without risking damage to most of his property. Whatever the reasons, critics of the government argue that landlords have not been held accountable to the city in a policy context where negligence and speculation is officially tolerated. Despite these issues, many local and state government agencies have moved to the city centre over the past decade, mobilizing new businesses and services and refurbishing the old buildings. Hotels are also being renovated, mainly by big hotel chains, and many private universities offer courses in the city centre. Additionally, a small number of residential buildings are being refurbished and are attracting middle-class buyers. The implementation of the City Statute in 2001, a federal law that aims to encourage the social function of urban property, established a series of mechanisms to curb real estate speculation and changed the permanence of tax debt by property owners. Under the City Statute, local governments can increase the urban land tax on properties that have been permanently vacated, and even reclaim the properties if owners do not pay. They can also prosecute owners and receive property as a payment of their debt. This law is currently being voted in São Paulo in relation to its central area. However, very few cities in the country are using these tools and, if they do, they face protracted litigation. The São Paulo housing authority has faced legal action when it has sought to requisition or purchase abandoned buildings. The issues arise out of a contradictory feature of the City Statute that guarantees private property rights as it promotes the social function of urban land and the public good. The ‘social function’ of land concept serves as an expression of the limit to private property rights by guaranteeing private property as long as it accomplishes its social function, but that notion can be left open to interpretation. Various groups are promoting positive state intervention to requisition or buy up centrally located properties and refurbish them, with the objective of developing social housing for the homeless. Shock tactics such as invasions *

Patricia Samora authored the first draft of this Special Feature. She is an architect and urban planner at School of Architecture and Urban Planning, São Paulo University.

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Sao Paulo; A tale of two cities  

UN-HABITAT’s new Cities and Citizens series examines urban inequality in the developing world through in-depth analysis of intracity data de...

Sao Paulo; A tale of two cities  

UN-HABITAT’s new Cities and Citizens series examines urban inequality in the developing world through in-depth analysis of intracity data de...

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